Writer: Steve Dinnen
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
Linda Koehn dialed into classical music as a fourth grader, sitting in Mrs. Bullington’s class at Monroe Elementary School. At that time Des Moines Public School students regularly attended performances of the Des Moines Symphony, and Mrs. Bullington wanted to make sure they knew what they were getting into when they trekked to the now long-gone KRNT Theater for a concert. So she would tutor them on the music, composer and program.
“Our teacher coached us well,” Linda recalls. “The pieces usually had stories to accompany them, and we knew the stories and the music: Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade;’ the Italian song, ‘Finiculi, Finicula,’ that Andrea Bocelli famously sings; and of course, the ‘William Tell Overture’ by Rossini.”
Koehn took piano and clarinet lessons. She also was a singer and was part of Iowa All-State Chorus. “Music was just a part of my life,” she says.
In his school days, Tom Koehn wasn’t quite as keen on music as Linda, but he did manage to play an instrument.
“Tom remembers carrying his trumpet to and from school on the handlebars of his bike,” Linda says. “Although his sister remembers [him] practicing in the living room, she did not remark on the quality of the sound.”
When the couple started dating, Linda says a litmus test for whether he would make a good match was how well he accepted classical music on a date to a symphony performance. Tom passed the test, and soon enough they married.
In short order, the Koehns found themselves linked to the Des Moines Symphony, both as hardworking volunteers who made it run and as top-tier financial backers who have helped pay for it all.
Tom, who is a retired CEO of construction contractor Waldinger Corp., served both as treasurer and board member of the Symphony from 1989 to 1995. In the treasury role, he says he saw where money was coming from, where it was going, and how much was needed.
“That was a good education for me on the business side” of the Symphony, Tom says. “It’s a complex, multifaceted organization.”
Having someone keep an eye on the money proved invaluable to Joseph Giunta, the Des Moines Symphony’s music director. Tom, who met Giunta when the conductor first arrived in Des Moines in 1989, advised the maestro “what we could do, what we could afford,” Giunta says. “The advice he gave us was priceless.”
Linda worked just as hard, as a member and later as chair of the Symphony’s Women’s Guild. This long-serving volunteer group sold tickets, attended concerts and served as goodwill ambassadors for the Symphony.
“They were the backbone of the organization,” says Giunta of the Guild members. The Women’s Guild and its successor, the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra Alliance, were active from 1953 to 2002.
The Guild and other supporters of the Symphony also managed fundraising efforts, and this is where the Koehns’ generosity shone. A major fundraiser began in 2012, to mark the 75th anniversary of the Symphony. The initial goal was $4.5 million but that was quickly upped: “We thought $7.5 million sounded interesting” as a goal, pairing the dollar amount with the years, Giunta says. “After nine or 10 months we got to $10-plus million. The success of that would not have happened without Linda and Tom’s help.”
A key component of that drive was the establishment of the Linda and Tom Koehn Endowed Chair of the music director—Giunta’s job. Also, the Symphony’s size grew, and the organization expanded its programs.
In 2018 the Symphony sought financial support for a series of summertime concerts at the new amphitheater at Water Works Park. Once again the Koehns stepped up. They not only donated funds to the Water Works Foundation, which built the amphitheater, but they also committed to fund the first five years of free concerts there. Giunta says he believes that series eventually will be as popular a draw as the long-running Yankee Doodle Pops concert that celebrates the Fourth of July.
The pandemic forced cancellation of this year’s Water Works program (and the fundraising effort is paused). But the Koehns remain committed to the program, and used the reason behind cancellation to remind themselves, and the Des Moines community, that when lives are upended it’s important for those who can to broaden their charitable efforts.
“We realize there is more to the community than the arts, especially with the pandemic,” Tom says. “There are huge mental health challenges.”
He ticks off a list of agencies, such as United Way of Central Iowa, the Des Moines Area Religious Council, and the Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center, that are all pitching in to meet the needs of the community. As Linda says: “If you want to be in a community, you really should support it.”